"Let’s get real about freedom at work". (From the Vault #6)

Posted by jlubans on July 18, 2016

As I work away on my book, Fables for Leaders (illustrated by Beatrice Coron!)
I am turning to the vault for some of my favorite essays. This week’s is from August 2013.
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WorldBlu* (“Freedom at Work”) has kicked off its leadership-training program by nailing a list of 22 organizational elements to Hierarchy’s obdurate door. Kind of like what Martin Luther did back in 1517 when he hammered home his “95 Theses”.
Now, I am all for using hyperbole to separate the democratic workplace from the hierarchy; what bothers me is when our claims are akin to a religious schismatic: the believers on one side and the nonbelievers on the other! And, you know, yea, verily, who’s going to hell!
According to the list of 22, Fear-Based Leadership (FBL) is the devil’s spawn and Freedom-centered Leadership (FCL) is salvation.
There’s no middle ground (or purgatory) on this list, only certainty; you’re damned or you’re saved.
Now, while I agree with much of what’s on the list I do not see it in such absolute terms. I take issue right at the top, with the headers: “fear-based” vs. “freedom-centered”. Fear is relative and I dare say it exists in freedom-centered organizations when the economy slows down or the legislature decides to cut the budget, or when your competitor develops a break-through service, or, most certainly of all, when you have a bad boss!
Here are a half dozen of the 22 leadership elements, with those on the left defining “fear-based” and those on the right defining, “freedom-centered” leadership:

Blind dependency vs. Self-governed
Acts like a boss vs. Chooses to be a leader
Ego-driven vs. Ego-less
Arrogant vs. Humble
Unethical and immoral vs. Ethical and moral
Unhappy vs. Joyful
Undisciplined vs. Disciplined
Lacks purpose vs. Purpose-driven


OK, OK, I put down 8. I got carried away in my enthusiasm.
This short list is useful in discriminating between the two types of leadership, but we should note these are the extreme end points, the yin and the yang, on a scale, with many degrees of separation in-between. Let me clarify by using an attitudinal scale like the Likert: Strongly agree / Agree / Don’t know / Disagree / Strongly disagree in responding to a series of statements. For example:
“My leadership is ego-driven.” Circle one: Strongly Agree, Agree, DK, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.
Almost immediately you run into questions of meaning of terms. What’s ego-driven leadership? Is it necessarily bad for the organization? It sounds bad, so why would anyone admit to being ego-driven?
“I am joyful at work.” SA, A, DK, D, SD?
(Then, again, I might ask myself, “How much does my happiness derive from work?)
“My leadership is unethical and immoral.” Some leaders are indeed unethical and immoral but who is going to admit it? Who is not going to sign on with, “My leadership is ethical and moral”?
“My leadership is disciplined.” (What does it mean to be undisciplined at work? Don’t most fear-based organizations depend on discipline to keep people in line?
“I am an arrogant leader.” Who would confess to that? Would not the most arrogant of us claim to be the most humble? Does not that form of self-delusion go with arrogance, if you get my meaning?
I am all for using a continuum rather than an absolute scale. On a continuum I can pinpoint where I am between “unhappy” and “joyful”. Or, I can plot how I am doing in my quest to be “purpose-driven”. Or, I can mark on a continuum where I stand between “Selfish” and “Selfless”.
See?
Listings like this all have some truth, but none have absolute truth. How would I do it differently? Well, I would say that to be an effective freedom-centered leader one aspires to those 22 characteristics. I may fall short in several, but I keep trying. Leadership, if anything, is always a work in progress. What went well last year, may not go so well this year – I may lapse, fall off the heaven-bound wagon and have to figure out how to scramble back on.

*WorldBlu is a good source for finding corporations and other agencies that apply democratic principles to how they organize and how they treat workers. Their “List of Most Democratic Workplaces” is the starting point if you are looking for examples of this type of company.

© Copyright 2013 & 2016 John Lubans

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